Gravity, Not Mediocrity – The real reason kids do not always reach for the stars

Hubble's view of M15COMMENT - I’ve been out of the education news loop for a while, dealing with real-life issues of my own (God bless the NHS for saving my mother’s life – a couple of years hence I’d probably have had to take her down Kwikfit for the operation) and so it was with tears of teeth-gritting joy that I discovered an article in the Telegraph of 26th October by Peter Mullen, based upon comments made by David Laws, MP.  The article is entitled “Teachers who perpetrate mediocrity have no place in our nation’s classrooms” and focuses on the allegation made recently by David ‘I’ve got a cheek criticising anyone after what I did with expenses’ Laws, that some state school teachers do not encourage their pupils to do the very best they can and (as he put it) “reach for the stars”.  As Mullen – I’m sorry, he might be a vicar but I can’t bring myself to call him ‘the reverend’ – puts it,  some teachers have “depressingly low expectations and are promoting mediocrity among their pupils, content to see them drift into only routine jobs with local employers”.

The second paragraph of this – let’s call it an article, because ‘Pile of old squawk’ might offend the author – begins “If this is the truth”.  It ISN’T the truth, love.  It’s a porky pie spouted by a formerly disgraced MP who now seeks to claw his way back into the public eye by joining in that favourite of all sports, ‘teacher-bashing’.  If Hitler had survived, he might well have fetched up in Buenos Aires a few years after the end of the war, standing on a soapbox and shouting “Lehrer sind Scheiße! Es ist ihre Schuld!”

Mullen goes on to postulate that it’s all because of over-sentimental, woolly attitudes that he reckons abound in state schools, wherein teachers don’t want anyone to ‘fail’, pressurise children beyond their capabilities, and then he makes the breathtaking claim that teachers “will cite the damaging experience of failure and argue from this that it is better for a pupil not to try than to try only to fail.”

I have to confess to sitting back with my mouth open in complete amazement at that point, because Mullen is describing attitudes I have never, ever heard or seen from a single teacher since I first taught in 1981.  Mullen reckons he knows for a fact there are “plenty” of teachers in our schools who are consumed with envy and therefore so bitter and twisted that they fight against anything that might be remotely termed ‘elitist’.  Again, I’m staggered he’s ‘met them’, because I never have – and I taught for three years in a school in the East End, during the late 80′s, which had been a bit of a hot-bed of union radicalism.

There are two very good reasons why what Mullen claims is not actually happening in any state school.  They’re called ‘League tables’ and ‘Ofsted’, they’ve ratcheted up pressure on teachers to put increasing pressure on the children they teach and  mean that it’s just not feasible for teachers  to hold such beliefs – if they did, they’d be on disciplinary proceedings pretty sharpish.

I’d be willing to stand in front of Mullen right now – or at the time of his choosing – and offer concrete evidence, names and pack drill to prove he’s entirely making up this rubbish in order to get his article in the Telegraph.  To further his education on this issue, I’d take him into a range of schools and show him what teachers do on a daily basis.  I’d get him to observe meetings in which teachers are held to account for the ‘aspirational’ targets set for their classes, in which they’re asked to explain the progress made by each child in the class and what they intend to do to support each child in making further progress.

Obviously, I popped across to have a look at what Laws himself had said, rather than take the word of old ‘Trust me, I’m a vicar, would I make this up?’ Mullen.    I was very interested by the following comment that he made in his pitch to be rehabilitated as ‘not a crook who sees the taxpayer as a cash cow’:  “If your expectation in a school is that you only need a modest set of qualifications because that’s all you need to work for the local employer, which you think is the best job you could do, that’s a huge cap not just on social mobility, it is a cap on achievement in examinations.”

I’m sure the first reaction of anyone reading it is to say, ‘Well, he has a point’, especially if they’ve got a spare moment in their endless search to find a reliable and competent plumber, joiner, electrician or someone to do a small pointing job on their brickwork.  What we’ve got here is a typical, middle class view of what’s worth doing and what’s not, tangled up in a completely paradoxical argument that suggests on the one hand that every pupil should aim for the stars and get into Oxbridge, followed by the city and on the other, which accepts the fact that not all children are academically gifted (says Mullen) and that we “should strive to make sure we correctly identify the particular strengths of each pupil and offer help and encouragement to develop and exploit those strengths.”

Meanwhile, Laws suggested that many young people “without family connections believe that careers such as banking, law and journalism are closed.”  He should perhaps have added that an increasing number of people think they’d rather their children went into drug dealing than into banking, law and journalism, given the activities of the members of those three professions in recent years.

It’s the denigration of the worth of working for local firms, or doing anything ‘less’ than going to Oxbridge and then into ‘the city’ that especially strikes me about David Laws’ utterances.  Throw in the notion that teachers spend their time instructing their pupils not to bother with Oxbridge, because (we must assume) they’re constantly telling them ‘Working in t’mill’s all tha good for, lad.’

David ‘pass me those expenses forms, will you?’ Laws clearly has no idea what life in many towns and cities is like if he imagines that a lot of young people have the choice to view working for ‘local employers’ as an actual option; moreover, he also has no idea what the prospect of leaving university aged 21 saddled with at least thirty grand’s worth of debt looks like to an awful lot of young people, even those from relatively middle class homes.  Throw in the prospect of being unemployed as well – because that’s the end product for too many bright, well-qualified young graduates at the moment – and aiming for a job with a ‘local employer’ at 18 looks like the better option to me.

It’s something he and Peter Mullen might like to contemplate if they’re looking for the real reason some of the brighter youngsters aren’t even thinking of aiming for any university, let alone Oxbridge, these days.

Please submit your comments below.

Helen Freeborn

Helen Freeborn was a secondary headteacher for 11 years until she gave it all up to live in Greece. Now returned after four years abroad, she divides her time between consultancy, training, a range of writing projects and catching up with all the television she has missed.

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2 total comments on this postSubmit yours
  1. Personally, I am fed up with the poor quality of sermons given in churches these days. Quite frankly, too many of the clergy are failing miserably to inspire their parishioners to achieve eternal life, and Ofgod need to weed these idlers out forthwith. Perhaps the rev Mullen could turn his attentions to my concerns, which are all too real. I know this because I have been to church as a child and I have watched every episode of the vicar of Dibley.

  2. Where are these teachers to whom MPs and now men of the cloth (between their ears apparently) refer? In which schools do they teach? Surely some of us should have met at least one who spouts the garbage these commentators use as fodder for their articles. I’m another who has never met a teacher who didn’t want the best for their pupils and who isn’t jumping through a zillion hoops and obstacles put there by people who do not teach and, usually, have never taught!

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